In recent decades, lead poisoning in children has gone down significantly. Some large cities have worked hard to eradicate the causes of the problem. But children in some areas are still being exposed to lead through old lead paint and other sources. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Grant reports the concern about continuing high levels of lead in children’s blood demands that those cities also tackle the problem:
In recent decades, lead poisoning in children has gone down significantly. Some large
cities have worked hard to eradicate the causes of the problem. But children in some
areas are still being exposed to lead through old lead paint and other sources. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Grant reports the concern about continuing high levels of
lead in children’s blood demands that those cities also tackle the problem:
In Cleveland, school superintendent Barbara Byrd-Bennett has found a test that puts her
students in the top ten nationwide. But this is not something that she wants for her
This test finds that 20% of children in Cleveland have too much lead in their
“One out of every five children tested in Cleveland has a lead level that exceeds CDC
guidelines. In some parts of our city, I would characterize it as an epidemic.”
Byrd-Bennett is especially concerned about recent statistics from parts of the city
where there are lots of older houses, but most people don’t have the money to get
rid of lead paint. In some neighborhoods, the lead blood levels exceeded federal
standards in about 60% of children tested. Byrd-Bennett says it’s intolerable.
“In a half a dozen other city neighborhoods, at least one of every four children
had an elevated level. We ought to be furious. We ought to want to…
I’m a product of the sixties… we ought to want to have a revolution about this.”
Byrd-Bennett believes high levels of lead in the blood makes it difficult for affected
children to focus, to follow directions, and ultimately, to stay in school. High lead
exposure has been linked to juvenile delinquency, learning disabilities, and lowered IQ
Dr. Bruce Lanphear studies environmental health at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. He
says these problems are not only associated with high exposure, defined by the federal
government as over ten micrograms of lead per deciliter
“But perhaps even more striking is if you look at children below ten micrograms per
deciliter… that is, children whose blood lead levels never attained or exceeded ten
micrograms per deciliter… so by all accounts would have been fine, based upon our
existing action level. And what we found is, our estimated deficit, going from less than
one to less than ten, or about ten, was fifteen points in IQ. Huge effects.”
That means even in cities where the percentage of children considered at risk of high lead
levels is low, there’s still reason to be concerned. And there are a lot of children
affected. For example, in Cleveland, nearly 14,000 young children could have low
levels of lead poisoning.
Still, David Jacobs, Director of Lead Hazard Control at the U.S. Department of Housing
and Urban Development is hopeful…
“If we’re smart about this and we work together, I believe we can in fact make lead paint
hazards in our housing stock virtually disappear. This disease can go the way of polio.
We have the know-how now to eliminate this disease.”
Childhood lead poisoning has declined steadily since the 1970s. That’s when cars
stopped spewing leaded exhaust and lead paint was banned. But 40% of homes
around the nation still contain lead paint from the first half of the 20th century. Rather
than getting to kids after they’ve been poisoned, many cities are focusing on how to
prevent exposures in the first place. Parents, landlords, and public agencies usually
shoulder the costs of repainting walls and refurbishing windows. But Dr. Lanphear of
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital believes paint companies should help pay to fix the
problem, because they are partly responsible for it.
“And so all of the problems that we’re seeing today, because for the most part what we’re
dealing with is lead-based paint, has come about because of this deception. And so if we
need to look toward private industry to help us solve this problem, I would suggest we
know exactly where to begin. That may be difficult in the state of Ohio. We have a lot
of paint companies housed here, don’t we?”
Sherwin Williams and Glidden paint companies are both based in Cleveland. The paint
industry says it’s not their fault if houses are poorly maintained and not regularly
repainted. So far, forty lawsuits against lead paint companies have failed.
meantime, some cities, such as Milwaukee and Chicago, have honed in on finding
funding and solving the problem. Cleveland and many other cities have not.
Matt Carroll, Acting Director of the Cleveland Health Department, says the time has
“A lot of lead activity has been going on in this community for a long time. But as a
community have we said, ‘this is how we’re going to try to create a plan to address it?
This is our goal? This is our thing we’re going to say we’re going to accomplish by a certain date?'”
Cleveland city and county health officials are focusing on how to get rid of the lead
problem. They hope to better educate parents, to improve lead testing of children and
homes, and to clean up homes that are poisoned. Like many large and mid-size cities,
Cleveland has a lot of work ahead.
But at least they’re on the road. Many smaller cities and towns don’t even know if they
have a problem because so few children there are tested for lead poisoning.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Julie Grant.